The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 64.0°F | Partly Cloudy

Got Milk?

Elaine Wan

A frothy white milk moustache outlines the mouth of Sara Michelle Gellar in a picture on the back of a magazine. Gellar, the star of the famed "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series, is one of many celebrities and athletes who have promoted the consumption of milk. Doctors and parents have also told us repeatedly to drink the calcium-rich, vitamin-fortified beverage because it helps build strong teeth and bones. What all these advocates for milk do not know is that the milk can be bad for you.

To increase milk production, decrease infections, and lower costs, dairy farms in the United States inject cows with antibiotics and bovine growth hormone, also known as Posilac. The genetically engineered hormone increases a cow's milk production by 10 to 15 percent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the hormone in 1993, after a study in the journal Science reported "no toxicologically significant changes" in a 90-day study on rats that ingested the hormone.

Recently, an independent study by the Canadian government indicated previously unreported side effects to Posilac. Some rats in the study developed cysts and antibodies to the hormone. Milk from cows injected with bovine growth hormone may cause similar effects in humans by raising our risks of breast and prostate cancer. Dairy farmer associations and consumer groups in the United States have reportedly filed suit against the FDAfor not requiring more comprehensive tests on such hormones.

Canada is not the only country which has refused to allow dairy farms to use the hormone. The United Kingdom is also a major supporter of organic products. Milk from cows treated with hormones or antibiotics are packaged with warning labels.

If the Canadians and English aren't subjected to the danger of drinking potentially carcinogenic milk from treated cows, then why should Americans have to expose themselves to such a health hazard? The United States is the leading country in the consumption of genetically altered products. Is milk one of many products that has been marketed despite its potential health hazards? If milk from treated cows can pose a health hazard, then the meat provided by the animal may have similar or worse deleterious effects.

Genetic engineering has given us the luxury of purchasing food products at lower costs. But if these products have adverse effects on our health, will you be willing to pay more for organic products? Organic refers to the natural growth and production of foods without the addition of chemicals or drugs like antibiotics or synthetic hormones.

I made a recent trip to the nearby Star Market where they market organic products at much higher prices than those of non-organic products. A half-gallon of organic milk from Organic Valley costs $2.79, a dollar more than the common half-gallon from Hood or Tuesan.

Organic Valley and other organic dairy farms claim they separate their cows from the other herds to ensure that their cows feed only on "the most natural food sources." Most importantly, these farms claim they do not inject their cows with any synthetic substances.

Three dollars may seem expensive for milk, but all that extra work the company proclaims to do seems well worth the extra buck. According to The New York Times, there is a growing demand for organic products. Sales of organic milk actually increased from $16 million to $31 million in 1997.

If you start buying organic milk, will you also buy organic cheese, yogurt or other organic dairy products in your next grocery shopping spree? Although the new Canadian report now urges families to switch to organic dairy products, many of us cannot afford to pay an extra dollar for each half-gallon of milk. But if you save the dollar you use to buy a soda and invest it on some milk from a cow that has been happily munching only on grass its whole life, you might live a bit longer.

The FDA has not publicly addressed the findings by the Canadian researchers or the potential health hazards of the milk you currently find in the dairy section. The rejected use of Posilac by the English and Canadian government gives United States consumers a good reason to doubt the nutrition of milk. If enough consumers are persuaded to switch to milk from naturally raised cows, the large demand will hopefully lower the prices of organic milk, enabling all of us to enjoy a cold glass of milk that is truly good for us.